Japan’s space agency to build reusable rocket

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Japan’s space agency JAXA revealed today that it plans to build a reusable rocket capable of launching twice in two days, with the first test launch now scheduled for 2019.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, plans to build a rocket that can carry observation equipment into space, return to Earth, and be ready for launch again the next day. JAXA aims to start test-launching and landing the roughly 7-meter rocket as early as the spring of 2019, and introduce it for regular operations in the 2020s.

JAXA has already confirmed that the rocket’s key components, including its engine, can endure more than 100 launches, significantly reducing costs compared with single-use models.

I hate to be such a spoilsport, but I have little faith they will do this on the schedule claimed. This story reads like the dozens I’ve read over the past three decades from Russia and NASA, where they repeatedly announce the coming development of some new rocket or manned space project, none of which ever happens.

In other words, this story is nothing more than a bit of government propaganda, trying to convince the Japanese public that JAXA is cutting edge, that they too are going to build reusable rockets, and that they can do it quickly. In reality, I doubt we shall see this government-built reusable rocket anytime soon.

The fact that they have issued this claim however is a good sign. Japan’s lumbering and expensive government space agency is now finding itself under pressure to deliver, and the competition that is causing that pressure might very well force them to streamline their operations and actually accomplish something.



  • Localfluff

    Japan should have better initial conditions for developing a new rocket than China has. I don’t trust those PPP power purchasing parity numbers when it comes to production costs. The idea behind that concept assumes that shifting cost structures is as easy as exchanging currency, if it is to be take seriously. That is only possible in free trade zones, the favorite, but not very real, assumption of most school books in economics. Japan can of course build cheaper, or more productive, launchers than China can any day.

  • Tom Billings

    Local said:

    “Japan can of course build cheaper, or more productive, launchers than China can any day.”

    Unfortunately, …not necessarily, though not because of the reasons you may be thinking. Japan has had a bad problem with the agency costs of political hierarchy overwhelming rational market-based decisions, that has been slowing them down at least since the 1992 financial crisis. In many ways, the perpetual answer to a problem in Japan has been more bureaucracy. Just like certain groups in Europe and the US, the Japanese oligarchs delight in hiring more college graduates into bureaucratic positions, to keep them from demonstrating in the streets about slow economic growth and no jobs.

    Certainly, Japanese engineers, given a small amount of funding that does not contribute to the power of the oligarchs as the funding’s primary purpose, can exhibit high productivity and high quality. Given the 20 years SpaceX is taking, they can do their own versions of vertical launch-vertical landing fully reusable spaceships.

    The real question now is whether that will be allowed in present-day Japan. Certainly, as Robert points out, it is not likely within JAXA, because JAXA exists to serve the oligarchs first and foremost. *Technically*, Japanese engineers can do it. Politically, as progressive elements inside Japanese political culture advance, the question is whether they will be *free* to do it.

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